- Written by Barry Sparks Barry Sparks
York native Richard Blair (born Richard Baublitz) enjoys reminiscing about his acting career, which spanned more than three decades.
The 91-year-old worked in dinner theaters across the country, toured nationally with 42nd Street and Mame, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and acted in several Broadway and off-Broadway productions.
He worked with well-known actors such as William Bendix (The Life of Riley and The Babe Ruth Story), Donald O’Connor (Singin’ in the Rain), Imogene Coca (Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows), Nancy Kulp (The Beverly Hillbillies), and Liza Minnelli (Cabaret).
“I was very fortunate to make a living acting and to work with some great people,” said Blair, whose acting work was so steady he never had to take another job to supplement his income.
A four-year stint in the Navy, aboard the U.S.S. Hornet, fueled his desire to be on stage. He sang and danced in a number of entertainment shows while on the ship.
When he was discharged from the Navy in 1955, he used the G.I. Bill to attend The American Theater Wing in New York City. One of his fellow students was James Earl Jones.
After he completed the two-year program, Ezra Stone, one of his instructors who was directing Make a Million on Broadway, suggested Blair audition for one of the parts, and he got it. Veteran stage and screen actor Sam Levene starred in the play.
“It was a big break for me,” recalled Blair. “I definitely had been bitten by the acting bug at that point.”
After that stint, Blair got a part in Take Me Along, which toured dinner theaters. Actor William Bendix replaced Jackie Gleason, who had played the lead role on Broadway.
The play closed when Bendix left to take a movie role. The historic Cape Cod Melody Tent theater in Hyannis, Massachusetts, hired Blair to appear in Wish You Were Here, featuring teenager Liza Minnelli.
“Liza played my girlfriend, and we hit it off,” said Blair. He remembers her as “exuberant, very likable, and extremely talented.”
Minnelli is one of the few performers who have won all four major show-business awards: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. One of Blair’s fondest memories is having dinner with Minnelli and her mother, Judy Garland, at a Chinese restaurant.
Most of Blair’s acting roles were in dinner theaters. New York City-based, he acted in some of the best-known plays, such as: A Thousand Clowns; Once upon a Mattress; Carnival; How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying; You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown; Call Me Madam; and many others.
One of his biggest breaks came when actor King Donovan, husband of Imogene Coca, asked him to play opposite Coca in Once upon a Mattress. The couple cast a number of plays and frequently selected him for one of the roles.
Having connections in the theater world is one of the keys to success, according to Blair.
“King and Imogene were responsible for much of my income,” he said. “They were a wonderful couple, and Imogene was one of the funniest and dearest people I ever worked with.”
For a while, Blair performed with The Revue at the Upstairs at the Downstairs nightclub in New York City. The New York Times called it “a theatrical breeding ground for some of the country’s best comedy and musical talents.” There, he met actresses and comedians Lily Tomlin, Ruth Buzzi, Linda Lavin, Fanny Flagg, and others.
Like many actors, Blair’s career had its ups and downs, false hopes and unfulfilled dreams. He chuckled about the time he earned the lead role of President Jimmy Carter in an off-Broadway play, Jimmy and Billy, only to have the show close after one night.
Then there was the time he garnered a role in a play that was rumored to be headed to Broadway, but it never made it. And, he once auditioned for a part in Broadway-bound Gypsy but narrowly missed getting it.
“My biggest regret is not acting in more Broadway shows,” he said. “But, I loved the dinner theater circuit. I did so many things I never dreamed I would do. And, I had so much fun doing them. That’s really what’s important.”